When Elon Musk took over Twitter it was a popcorn-worthy trainwreck. Poor decisions showed a core misunderstanding of the product, scaring away both advertisers and users. I’ve never seen a company fall this fast before. Then Unity decided to enter the arena.
Any opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of my current employer.
What follows is a simplified explanation of what a game engine does, but it’s enough to have a basic understanding of Unity if you aren’t a game developer.
For those who don’t know what it is, Unity is an engine used to develop video games. There are others like it, such as Unreal or Godot. Game developers use these engines as a base to build their game code, saving themselves the time of writing a lot of systems that are used in many games. Things like graphics, physics, networking, and so on can all be provided by the engine, allowing developers to pick, choose, and/or modify them to their own needs.
Unity is also a cross-platform engine, which means it can be used to create games across multiple platforms with ease. Want to release you web game on a mobile phone? Or on a console? Unity can do most of the work for you.
Alongside this, developers can also purchase plugins and assets to help them develop their games. Plugins for things like cloth simulation exist, which can save developers time. Plugins are often developed by third parties, essentially another avenue by which a company can make money with Unity.
Unity became one of the most popular game engines in the industry, possibly even the most popular engine. While it’s not great for making triple-As with the latest in 3D graphics, it’s the most common engine used for indie games, such as the fantastic Slay the Spire, and has been used by major studios to make games like Pokémon GO, Hearthstone, and COD: Mobile. Long story short, unless a game developer needs cutting edge graphics, chances are they’re developing with Unity.
In 2014, John Riccitiello became CEO of Unity. Within the gaming community he is famous for having previously worked for EA, and once proposed that players in Battlefield who ran out of ammo could make an in-game purchase during the match to reload their weapons. This worried many gamers, who are starting to get weary of games full of microtransactions.
Later he would be quoted as saying that developers who don’t monetise their games early are “fucking idiots”. This not only upset gamers, but also developers who worried he may try and force them into a microtransaction model that they didn’t want.
There’s a bit of a conspiracy theory around Riccitiello since he sold shares in Unity some time before the shit hit the fan. However, he only sold a small number of his shares. It’s possible he saw which way the winds were blowing early and decided to sell some just in case. A CEO will naturally have more of an idea of the direction a company is heading, but it isn’t evidence of anything criminal. So I think it’s unfair to suggest anything untoward with what is known publicly right now.
In 2022 Unity was bought by ironSource in a $4.4 billion deal, after rejecting a $20 billion bid by AppLovin. The merger was controversial with developers, and not just because ironSource is a monetisation platform.
The company was known best for creating installCore as it’s flagship product. Users were tricked into downloading it via a fake Chrome advertisement, and it would show users unwanted advertisements after installation. Windows Defender would eventually go on to classify it as malware.
This made the company seem untrustworthy in many people’s eyes, and after Riccitiello’s remarks about “fucking idiots” not using monetisation, they feared that Unity may eventually force monetisation patterns onto developers that didn’t want to use them.
Despite these concerns, most developers continued to use Unity, either blissfully unaware or believing that it wouldn’t be so bad in the end.
In September 2023 Unity announced a new pricing model that would charge per installation of a game. This led to a huge fallout in the game developer community. It appeared it was going to be retroactive. Some smaller developers calculated that they would actually lose money with the new model. They questioned what would happen with charity bundles, free games, or games being distributed by other companies like Steam or GOG.
There were also concerns about how this was all going to be tracked. What happens if a user installs, uninstalls, reinstalls, ad infinitum? Or just uses a script to make the correct requests to Unity’s servers? If this isn’t mitigated a nefarious user could carry out a DDOS-like attack and bankrupt a company overnight.
Clarifications came in. The fee would only apply if a company made above a certain threshold ($200,000 and 200,000 installs, or $1,000,000 and 1,000,000 installs, depending on the license). It wouldn’t apply to charity games or free games. It would only apply on a per-machine basis (i.e. a second install would have to be on a new machine). Finally, it wouldn’t be retroactive; only installs made on or after 2024 would count toward the fee.
This didn’t calm anyone down. People didn’t like the idea of a new business model based on installs. It didn’t mitigate the new attack – hackers could simply use virtual machines or spoof MAC Addresses to create fake installs across multiple machines. It was also unclear how installs would be tracked. Many had privacy concerns.
Unity also said that developers shouldn’t worry, since Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, et al. would pay the fee for them. This led to further derision, as it was unclear if these major corporations even knew about this, let alone had agreed to it.
The fallout was huge. Despite Unity’s price changes potentially costing less for some, they have lost the trust of the community. What happens if they decide to change it again further down the line?
Many companies and developers have vowed to give up Unity, either abandoning them or porting them to an open source engine like Godot. Among them is Slay the Spire studio Mega Crit saying, “We have never made a public statement before. That is how badly you fucked up.”
Several companies pulled their ironSource and Unity advertisements. Many companies started removing the Unity splash from the start of their game. Take away the money, hit them where it hurts.
Re-Logic, developers of Terraria, decided to make huge donations to open source alternatives Godot and FNA in response. They don’t even use Unity themselves, they just couldn’t “sit idly by as these predatory moves are made against studios everywhere.”
Every major videogame Youtuber started making videos about Unity’s new pricing scheme. Youtube game developers started pushing out “Trying Godot for the First Time” videos. AppLovin launched a free tool to help developers switch from Unity to engines like Godot or Unreal.
Unity even had to close two offices after receiving a death threat, which turned out to be made by one of its own employees.
Yeah. Unity had fucked up.
At the time of writing one can only speculate what the future holds for Unity. There are leaks that seem to indicate that despite a cap of 4% of profit and allowing developers to self-report, Unity still wants developers to track installs. Some suggest that the ultimate goal here is selling ironSource’s analytics software to developers, something many are wary of given their history. Of course, this is all speculation and should be taken with a grain of salt.
If people are to truly give up on Unity it will have a lasting impact on many in the industry. The Unity developers themselves who only wanted to create a good product. The indie game developers who are close to release on a Unity-based game. The plugin developers who released products on the Unity marketplace. The Youtubers who have spent years creating development tutorials for the engine. The students who have spent their time learning Unity who have no paid development experience yet.
When a company starts asking its customers for more money, its often a sign the company isn’t profitable. Usually companies can still survive for a while like this, however this debacle must be hitting Unity hard. Unless they can pull it back, it’s likely the company will go under.
Will Unity fix their pricing model? Will they be able to earn back the trust of developers? Will it be enough to make the company profitable? If Unity does fall, what will fill the void left behind?